As we find him in Chapter 28 he is living in fear of his brother Esau. You will remember that he has twice deceived and taken away significant privileges from his brother Esau. He took away his brother’s birth-right (Gen. 25:29-34) - the rights of the firstborn by which he would inherit his father’s land and the family line would be perpetuated through him. He also took away Esau’s covenant blessing (Gen.27), which was ordinarily reserved for the oldest son.
But that is not all. Esau himself had contributed to the problem, for he had sat loosely and indifferently on these privileges. Beware of sitting lightly on spiritual privileges! He was a man whose belly was his god. He was sensually driven. When he came home hungry from the fields and smelled that pot of lentil stew that his brother had made, and because he wanted it now, he sold his birth-right for that pot of lentil stew. And so it was that he lost his spiritual inheritance.
However it was not only Jacob’s connivance and Esau’s unprincipled way of thinking that got him into this mess. Their parents, Isaac or Rebekah had contributed greatly to it all. The result of this family’s poor relationship with God and with one another ultimately caused the fact that Esau’s heart grew bitter and that he therefore intended to kill Jacob after their father Isaac had died (Gen. 27:41). His bitterness serves as an example and a warning in the NT.
Hebrews 12:15-17 reads, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birth right for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears."
And now remember that over and above all this there is the fact that God had decreed that the promised seed (the Messianic line) should continue via Jacob the younger brother (Gen. 25:23àMalachi 1:2,3; Rom 9:12,13). The fact that this plan came about in such a crooked manner, has caused Bible expositors to spill much ink on this subject. The Bible however weaves the story together in an astonishing and shows us that all of man’s sin will not derail God’s purposes. Isaiah reminds us of this: “Remember this and stand firm , recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose…” (Isa. 46:8-10).
God’s purpose was that Jacob was God’s chosen vessel. No matter how little you may like this quote from Malachi 1:1,2, “… I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated…”, …it is a prerogative that belongs to the sovereign Lord. The sovereign God expects us to trust Him in this matter. As Creator, He commands us to wait patiently for the unfolding of His plan and the opening of the doors. Unfortunately, we like Jacob and Rebekah, are all too tempted to engineer our own futures. We think that we can speed up God’s plans by lending Him a hand here and there through devising our own plans. In this process we will not even shy away from deception and manipulation. Rebekah sought to push Jacob into the “fast track“. But did not the LORD tell her at the birth of her sons that “the older shall serve the younger “ (Gen. 25:23)? All she needed to do was to wait for God to act. He was already destined for this position by God. Instead, she pushes her son Jacob to act deceitfully so that he might inherit the covenant blessings by force. But there are no shortcuts to Christian success. We must keep in step with the Spirit (Gal. 5:25).
As a result of this deceit, and also as a result of his own twisted, emotionally driven, feelings orientated personality Esau hated Jacob so much, that he had begun to devise murderous plans in his heart against his brother (which would be a repeat of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4). Deceit destroys family relationships. The result of this is that Jacob had to flee and actually spend 20 miserable years under the roof of his deceitful uncle Laban, and away from his promised land.
Thankfully God loves His people still, even when their steps are momentarily away from Him. Moses, Elijah and Jonah all ran away from God’s decreed will for a while. But, the God who had called them and who had decreed their work for them, brought them back to His purposes – even in a roundabout way! God’s plan for Jacob was not hindered by the favouritism of Isaac, nor by the schemes of Rebekah, nor by the evil intentions of Esau. Man can neither thwart God nor help him. Isaiah 46:10 says, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’.
And so it happens that Jacob flees from Esau to the house of Laban his uncle. As he flees, he came to a certain place and stayed there the night (28:11). At this point God appears to him in a remarkable dream.
Jacob’s Dream (28: 12-15)
In his dream he saw“…a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold (!) the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold (!) the LORD stood above it and said, ‘I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac…” (28:12,13)
Just a brief word about dreams; at this stage there had been no written revelation such as we have in our hands today. Even the law of Moses was still in the future. Hebr. 1:1 says that “Long ago , at many times and in many ways God spoke to our fathers….”. God spoke very directly to people then, but since Jesus, the Son of God, and the last prophet has come and has spoken the last word, we now have the Bible as our ladder to heaven.
In his dream there was a ladder between earth and heaven. The ladder showed Jacob that there was a way made by God from earth to heaven. The angels that were ascending and descending the ladder were God’s ministering spirits (Hebr. 1:14), but what is most amazing about this picture is the way in which the Lord Jesus makes reference to Jacob’s dream in John 1:51, where He speaks with Nathanael, “And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Jesus was showing Nathanael there that He Himself was that ladder to heaven! He was telling Nathanael that He is the new and living way to God! What a picture! This OT story is an illustration of the saving work of God. Jesus is our ladder to God in heaven. He leads us to God. He is the way to God (John 14:6). At the top of this ladder (behold! Hebrew “hinneh”) there stood the LORD (Yahweh).
This was the first time that Jacob would actually meet the God of Abraham and Isaac, his father personally. This experience becomes the pivotal, life- changing event of his life. Nobody meets God and is not changed. This is the experience that changes him. And here the Lord confirms once again to Jacob what He had already promised to his mother Rebekah – and even more significantly what He promised to Abraham (Gen. 15): The land on which you lie I will to give to you and your offspring (28:13). This land was not better or more fertile or more beautiful than other parts of the world. The Lord chose this land because He needed a spot where a cross could be planted, on which His Son would bear the sins of the world. This land would bring forth the incarnate Son of God , and so we can truly see the real and ultimate fulfilment of this promise …“ in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (28:14)
28:15– “Behold, I am with you … and will keep you… I will not leave you”. This is what makes it possible to be a follower of God. Those were also the words that the Lord Jesus spoke to His disciples. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:20)
This dream – this meeting with God came just at the right time. Up to this point Jacob had been a man on his own mission. Up to this point he was not running into the arms of God, but he was running away from the brother who wanted to kill him. And behold (!) now God came to give him direction.
Jacob’s awakening (28:16-22)
Jacob woke up - and it is the awakening that tells us whether the dream had been real or not. For many of my dreams I am thankful that they were only dreams. But in this case Jacob realized that this had been more than a dream. He knew that he had been in the Lord’s presence, and he said, “surely the Lord is in this place” (28:16). “And he was afraid and said,’ How awesome is this place! This is none other than Bet-el – the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’” (28:17) This was the manifested glory of God. This place was heavy with the sense of God’s glory. That is why he was afraid. The Hebrew word for ‘glory’ (kabod) indicates ‘weight’. God was ‘heavy’ in this place. All God’s people in the Bible were afraid when confronted with the glory of God.
Jacob calls this place Bethel (Hebr. “House of God” ). There is no temple building - but it does not matter. The presence of the Lord, the dwelling of God is here. The presence of God in our midst is what matters.
This place and this encounter transformed Jacob from a worldly man into a worshipper. We have never heard him speak like this. Before this he is on the run because of his fear of Esau. Before this he is a man without real peace. The intrusion of God into his life transforms him. When the true voice of God speaks, true transformation, true renewal takes place. Until now Jacob had only heard and known about the God of his fathers. From this moment on he knows God personally - in an experiential way. Before this he had only known him as the God of Abraham and Isaac. Now He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!
He knows that he is now in God’s hand and trusts Him for future bread and clothing (28:20). He now trusts God for a return to his father’s (Isaac’s) house – where he ought to be, and he commits himself to place a memorial stone in this place, and later build an altar (which he does in Ch. 35) to remember this remarkable dealing of God with his soul. Notice too that his pocket is liberated to give a tenth of all he has to God. (28:22)
In Jacob we now see a truly liberated man, because he has encountered the Living God. He is now truly free to love God, truly free to serve God, to worship God and to give a tenth of all his possessions to God with a free heart.
This is what Jesus has come for us – to set us free indeed! When you are a liberated man or woman, then your God is at the top of the ladder, and you climb that ladder by faith in Jesus, who is your ladder, and He leads you into the Father’s House, our heavenly Bethel.
All this does not mean that God was done with Jacob and that he was perfect in every way. We shall see that his journey of faith had just begun, and he had far to go. But he was in God’s hand now, even through the difficult days that lay ahead. There will come another time when Jacob will meet God is a special way (cf. 32:22-32).
Thank God for days such as this. God surely knows how to encourage His people through difficult days, days of coldness and sin, days when we walk out on Him, days when we sigh, days when we want to die, all those days are in His hands. At the end of the ladder of life there is God, and there is Jesus who takes us there. All by grace.